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Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Cher Show

In lots of ways, The Cher Show is remarkably similar to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Both are big, shiny, spectacular jukebox musicals about iconic female superstars, created by overwhelmingly male creative and production teams. Both feature three actresses playing different versions of the star in question at various points in her life. And for whatever reason, both use a great deal of blue lighting and trapdoor lifts, though Summer's excessive reliance on the latter ultimately kicks The Cher Show's measly, single-trap ass. In every other way, though, The Cher Show is the superior production.

Joan Marcus
Don't misunderstand me: The Cher Show is not Brilliant Art. It's silly and breezy and light, so skip it if the idea of a fun if slightly flimsy couple of hours in the theater offends you. This is the kind of jukebox musical that elicits gleeful applause at the opening notes of a pop standard, or when an actor manages a passable impersonation of a beloved celebrity (that's quite the groovy Sonny Bono voice you've nailed down, Jerrod Spector!). Still, it works in ways that Summer, which was weirdly tentative and frustratingly convoluted in execution, did not.

In the first place, Cher has a concept, however basic, that it doesn't veer from. It knows what makes its subject simultaneously larger than life and appealingly vulnerable. It recognizes that Cher has had thrilling highs and devastating lows, and it plays to them. It wisely lingers on the stuff that is most dramatically viable: her discovery by and relationship with Bono, her shifting personae, her diverse career, her relationship with her wise, tough mother--without dwelling for too long on any one thing, or attempting to dig too deep. It also knows how to make fun of itself from the outset. Having the three Chers greet the audience at the top of the first act by calling us all bitches before immediately confronting how bizarre it is, even to them, that there are three Chers hanging around onstage pretty much establishes the tone. In fact, this tactic won me over immediately, even as I remain uncertain as to why the hell there were three Chers up there, or what they were all supposed to be representing. But then, seriously now, who the hell cares? I certainly don't plan to lose sleep over the question, and I'm sure none of the three Chers give a shit, either--truly, I feel pretty secure in the notion that they all just want the spectators to enjoy looking at the shiny Bob Mackie costumes, some of which got their very own huge and elaborate production number. Reader, enjoy them I did.

Another enormously important thing The Cher Show gets right is its audience, which is largely if not entirely gay and/or female. The creative team might be just as male as Summer's was, but at least this show doesn't pander or condescend. There was something decidedly off-putting, for example, about how Summer tried to present itself as inclusive and empowering, even as as it quickly swept its heroine's infamous born-again-influenced homophobia under the rug with a few glib platitudes.

The Cher Show is hardly deep: you won't get much about Cher's life here that you couldn't learn from a glance at her Wikipedia page; probably the Wiki would tell you more. A sister is mentioned only once and in passing. Cher's relationships with her children are almost entirely off-limits. Her romances are all surfaces: they form, peak, and wither. Sonny remains an important force in her life after their divorce, but how, why, and in what ways aren't plumbed; nor is anything about Bono save that he was ambitious, business-minded, and extraordinarily controlling. Only Cher's mom (played by a fine Emily Skinner) has some depth; anyway, she seems like she was a consistent, positive force in Cher's life, whether that's true or not. Still, the show's constant nod to the importance of women doing shit for themselves--or, whatever, for their daughters, especially when their daughters turn out to be Cher--speaks volumes. So do the costumes, the huge wigs, and the autotune.

In short, this is a fluffy bauble that knows exactly what it is and exactly how to entertain. Kind of like its title character. Have fun, bitches, or stay home.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Choir Boy

Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, just extended at the Friedman, is poignant, moving, and lovely. A coming-of-age drama set in an exclusive all-male, all-black boarding school, the swift 100-minute show focuses on Pharus Jonathan Young, a queer high-school senior whose greatest pride and source of comfort is his role as leader and star tenor of the school choir. Played by a truly exceptional Jeremy Pope, Pharus is deeply nuanced and often highly contradictory: smart, headstrong and self-possessed; unsure of who he is and where he belongs in the world.


Matthew Murphy

Much like McCraney's MoonlightChoir Boy places focus on the personal development of a single gay, black, male character over time; whereas Moonlight followed Chiron from youth to adulthood, Choir Boy covers events that take place in the course of a single year. Scenes are frequently punctuated by choreographed choral arrangements of gospel chestnuts, many of which touch on the character's situations or emotional highs and lows. Some of the choral arrangements are more sophisticated than others, but the concept works consistently, and some of the numbers are particularly effective.

The general consensus among critics about Choir Boy is that Pharus is far better developed than the characters who surround him, and who alternately make high school life less or more difficult for him. But I don't care, even a little bit, about the fact that the supporting characters don't have the depth or nuance of Pharus. They're engaging enough; the company is well-cast and talented to a man. And anyway, this is Pharus's story, and his very real ups and downs are well worth the audience's attention. How many times, after all, have characters like Pharus been made secondary, flimsy, shoved off to the side, reduced to two dimensions and a couple of stereotypical gestures designed to amuse spectators?  

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Best Performances of 2018

I am frequently blown away by the depth and quality of the New York acting community. Brilliant performances are everywhere.

(I've linked to my reviews for shows I did indeed review.)


THE ENSEMBLES

In the following shows, everyone was wonderful.

A Chorus Line

Band’s Visit



Dance Nation

Desperate Measures

Follies

Hello Dolly

Ordinary Days

The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke


ENSEMBLES, PLUS

In the following shows, everyone was wonderful but one or two people stood out, usually in lead roles.

Conflict--great cast, especially Jeremy Beck

Fabulation--great cast, especially Cherise Boothe

Ian Lassiter and Cherise Boothe
Photo: Monique Carboni

Happy Birthday, Wanda June--great cast, especially Jason O'Connell and Kate MacCluggage

Holy Ghosts--great cast, especially Oliver Palmer

Jerry Springer The Opera--great cast, especially Will Swenson


INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES

And then there are two individual performances I want to single out.

Farah Alvin was a new discovery for me in Inner Voices 2018. I think she can do pretty much anything.

Farah Alvin
Photo: Russ Rowland

In contrast, Ethan Hawke has long been a favorite of mine. I enjoy his all-in, balls-to-the-wall commitment to his roles, and I enjoy even more that he knows when to pull back. In True West, he is mesmerizing.


SECOND THOUGHTS?

Now I'm wondering if I should have included Jerry Springer The Opera, Ordinary Days, and The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke on my "best of" list. They were all wonderful. But what would I have removed from the existing list to make room?

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Best of 2018

In 2018, I saw 74 shows. Only nine of them were on Broadway; those prices, even when discounted, keep scaring me away. However, I've lost little by skipping Broadway shows (as much as I would have liked to see some of them). But Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway remain amazing, with OOB being particularly affordable.

Before making this list, I did a quick grading of the shows I saw. It was a good year: 27 rated A; 28 rated B; 7 rated C; and 12 rated D. I didn't rate any of them F, because I love and admire theatre and the people who make theatre happen.

This is not a top ten. It's a top 13, and I managed to actually include 18 shows. In cases where I reviewed the show, I've linked to the review. Oh, and I certainly understand that this is really a list of "shows I liked best of the shows I saw" and not truly a "best of" list. But calling these lists "best of" is the custom, and I'm going along with that.

The list is alphabetical.





A Chorus Line: It was a truly extraordinary experience to get to see a first-class production of this wonderful show in such an intimate setting. Kudos to the Gallery!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde




Cooper Bates Photography
Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg wore many hats during Blanket Fort Entertainment’s New York premiere of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde from Dec. 6-16 at the Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series, including writer (Grinstead and Stromberg), director (Stromberg) and actors (Grinstead and Stromberg).

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, this version sought to insert moments of laughter into the traditional story, which takes place in London around the 1860s where Dr. Jekyll explores the academic question of “what is the nature of morality” after his brother is executed as a serial killer. Grinstead tackled the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde admirably.

Especially well done were the transformation scenes where his body changed dramatically from one character to the next. With a jerk of his foot and the stretching of his hands, Mr. Hyde appeared - even as Grinstead simply changed the sets in shadow, an edge of malevolence in each deliberate movement.

The clever set, in interlocking sections, opened to reveal bookshelves, cabinets - even a fireplace of sorts - was manipulated in a swirl of careful choreography. When Mr. Hyde stamped through the audience, leering into their eyes, people laughed as they became part of the spectacle.

Gags lighten up some of the somber material. For instance, Stromberg "accidentally" left an apron on for a scene as a male. Grinstead communicated the costume problem with a deliberate look and she smoothly whipped it off without losing character.

The production team included Terry Collins (Set Construction), Burt Grinstead (Sound & Set Design), Matt Richter and Adam Martin (Original Lighting Design) and Anna Stromberg (Costume Design).

The show also gave context to the story by exploring Dr. Jekyll's friendships and relationships. Especially poignant is Dr. Jekyll's interactions with his maid, who ultimately becomes his moral conscience as the story navigates to its conclusion.

The show earned six Hollywood Fringe Festival Awards including Best Comedy, winner of the 2CentsTheatre Award for Distinctive Voices, and winner of the Soho Playhouse Fringe Encore Series Award.

For more info you can visit https://www.BlanketFortEntertainment.com

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Liz's Top Ten of 2018

While I can't say I'll miss a whole lot of things that went down in 2018, it's worth acknowledging just how good the theater was, at least in these parts. Whereas past seasons have been pretty weak, I had a lot of trouble whittling my list down to a top ten this year. Some of the ones I finally settled on weren't so easy to call: many just narrowly edged out other excellent productions (sorry, Network, Our Lady of 121st Street, Soft Power and Boys in the Band, you all kicked truly impressive ass--but something or another ended up taking your spot. I'm sure you'll forgive me. Soft Power, I'm especially eager to see you again when you're just a teeny bit clearer on what you want to be).

Anyway, thanks for the memories, 2018, at least as far as escaping to the theater goes.

To a happier and more peaceful new year--and another strong season!

SpongeBob SquarePants
My initial review was tepid, I admit it. But then, (a) the first time I saw the show, I went alone on a Wednesday afternoon, I was prepared to dislike everything I saw, and I was seated behind four ladies who all promptly fell asleep, so I was not exactly in the ideal headspace. Also, and way more importantly, (b) I did not have my son and nephew with me. Watching the show through their (very wide) eyes a second time made me realize that I'd stumbled on the perfect way to see it. My concerns about corporate soullessness vanished, especially once my son started bouncing up and down in his seat and singing along with "Best Day Ever" (we shushed him, but we all had a great time. And he wasn't the only one singing, either). Inventive, sweet, well-meaning and probably deserving of a longer run than it got, the show may remain a corporate behemoth--but it's one that had a great deal of charm, love and magic to it.




The Ferryman
The Ferryman was structured almost exactly the way Butterworth's Jerusalem was: the same loose, sweeping, frequently comedic scenes that gradually cohered into something bigger, less naturalistic, more intensely explosive--replete, even, with the same sonic build in the last scenes. The pacing thus felt lifted from the earlier (and, to me, ever-so-slightly-better) epic. Still, truly, this is the only criticism I can come up with (though I'm sure that, were I Irish, I might find plenty more to gripe about). The Ferryman is gripping, beautifully acted (even by a baby, a bunny, and a goose, for chrissakes), and I felt like I knew and cared for its many characters by the end of a fleeting three-plus hours. Butterworth might work on changing up the pacing of his future plays, but then, he's written two sweeping, huge, long, extraordinary plays, and I have never written a damn scene in my life. He totally wins this round.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Net Will Appear

At the beginning of Erin Mallon's The Net Will Appear, 75-year-old Bernard climbs out of his second-story window to use the roof of the first floor as a deck. He sets up his camping chair and pours himself what he will later refer to as his "Jim Beam juice." Not long afterward, 9-year-old next-door-neighbor Rory climbs out of her second-story window, full of questions and stories and malapropisms. He's crabby, though of course he has a heart. She's cheerful, despite plenty of reasons not to be. It quickly becomes clear that (1) she will win him over; (2) the play will offer no surprises along the way; and (3) the production will nevertheless provide a sweet little evening in the theatre.

Richard Masur
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

Author Mallon writes by the numbers, but she does so competently and with feeling. Richard Masur's performance as Bernard is also by the numbers, but he's a skillful, likable actor and it works. Eve Johnson as Rory talks very, very, very fast, often losing intelligibility along the way, and she could use some lessons in comic timing. She's not great, but she's good enough and also likable; in quieter scenes, she shows a level of promise that made me wish that director Mark Cirnigliaro had been able to elicit better work from her.

Eve Johnson
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

The physical production is fine, with the exception of the between-scenes music, which grows more and more annoying as time passes.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise here. The Net Will Appear is a nice, old-fashioned evening in the theatre, and Richard Masur's performance alone is worth the low-priced ticket. It is what it is, and it's a solid version thereof.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 80

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Clueless, The Musical

"What, another musical based on a late 20th-century movie?" you may ask. Well, yeah. But here's the thing: it's really good.

Zurin Villanueva, Dove Cameron
Photo: Monique Carboni

Writer/lyricist Amy Heckerling made a series of smart decisions in bringing Clueless, her funny-yet-heartfelt movie to the stage. The first was using well-known 90's songs, to which she added sharp, funny lyrics. The familiar melodies establish the time period perfectly, and they feel/sound like old friends.

The second smart decision was to be true to the original movie, which is one of those wonderful pieces that manage to nest real dilemmas, character growth, and a moral stance into yummy cotton candy.

The third smart decision was to work with director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine. Hanggi's direction is well-paced and -focused. She balances the silliness and meaning perfectly. And Hanggi's choreography is energetic, playful, and great fun--exactly what the piece needs.

And the forth smart decision was the excellent casting. Dove Cameron is perfect as Cher, melding the character's complex combination of savvy and shallowness, altruism and egotism, and courage and fear into a completely lovable heroine. She handles the direct-to-audience dialogue beautifully, and her singing voice is gorgeous. Other standouts in the cast include Will Connolly as the adorable stoner Travis, Chris Hoch in multiple roles as the male grown-ups, and Dave Thomas Brown as ex-step-brother Josh, though the whole cast is excellent.

So, I didn't love the scenery and lighting. There were moments that would have benefited from better enunciation. Heckerling's lyrics include occasional half-rhymes that would land better as full rhymes. (I'm of the school that musicals need real rhymes to help the audience catch and enjoy every word.) The opening number runs a little long. But these are small complaints in the context of how much genuine delight the show provides.

I imagine that Clueless, The Musical will move to Broadway. Catch it at the New Group if you can. The intimacy of a small theatre is an added plus to Clueless's already fabulous experience.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row k)
Show-Score: 93